Sathnam’s mum has found him a nice Sikh woman who she assures him looks just like Kylie Minogue. Or maybe he would like the one who allegedly resembles Cheryl Cole. Meanwhile, however, Sathnam is struggling to find the courage to tell his parents that he is planning to break with family tradition and marry a non-Sikh white woman.
But this is not just a standard intergenerational Asian culture-clash tale. The central drama hinges on the moment that Sathnam, a successful 20-something journalist, returns to his childhood home and makes a discovery about mental illness in the family that deeply shocks him.
The revelation makes him reassess his childhood memories and question his assumptions about the experiences and histories of others close to him.
The Boy With the Topknot is a feature-length BBC drama adapted from Sathnam Sanghera’s biographical family memoir about growing up as a Sikh boy in 1980s Wolverhampton. Like the book, the film is at times very funny, but it is also a moving portrayal of how mental illness can affect not just the person concerned but also those around them.
When we first meet Sathnam he is clearly proud to be the one who got away — unlike his siblings he escaped the Midlands, has a degree from Cambridge and has a good media job and a trendy flat in London.
But this clearly makes him feel something of an outsider at the big family gatherings his mother organises. As the drama unfolds, he finds his attitudes changing and embarks on a quest to find out more about his parents’ lives and stories.
The drama convincingly portrays the dynamics at play in Sathnam’s family — full of tensions and contradictions, tenderness and conflict, it also touches on issues of identity, belonging and migration.
There are some strong perfomances including Sacha Dhawan as Sathnam. In particular Deepti Naval is brilliant, subtle and convincing as Sathnam’s mother. It is the mother’s story, revealed under Sathnam’s questioning, that in many ways forms the most engaging and moving part of the story.
Without wanting to sound like one of those churlish “the book was better” people — I am afraid it was. That’s mainly because the novel is able to give more depth and detail to the characters, and also because it gives us more of Sathnam’s childhood growing up in Wolverhampton — a part of the story that we sadly largely miss out on in the film.
The adaptation takes some liberties with the book to provide a somewhat sickly-sweet ending, but it is still an enjoyable, entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking drama.